70 Years Since Hiroshima

Written by: Wilson D. Miscamble

Atomic Cloud

The atomic cloud over Nagasaki

This week will mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The American bombings effectively ended the Second World War, killed over 100,000 people, and raised complicated questions about nuclear weapons and the limits of war. In an excerpt from his book The Most Controversial Decision, Wilson D. Miscamble explores the complicated legacy of those events.


The American use of atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 eventually provoked a series of debates that made this the most controversial decision of Harry S. Truman’s presidency. Such debates arose from a rejection of the arguments put forth by policy-makers like Truman and his secretary of war Henry L. Stimson that the atomic weapons brought the war to a quick end, avoided the need for a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands, and thereby saved both American and Japanese lives. Especially after the appearance of Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist Atomic Diplomacy in 1965, various writers challenged the notion that the atomic bombs were needed to defeat imperial Japan. Instead, argued Alperovitz and like-minded scholars, the bombs were dropped as part of a diplomatic offensive to intimidate the Soviet Union. To say that this view took a firm hold over a generation of American historians probably understates the matter.

More recent and careful research by scholars like Richard B. Frank, Dennis Giangreco, and Sadao Asada has succeeded in dismantling key elements of the argument that the bombs were dropped on a Japan supposedly on the brink of surrender so as to gain diplomatic advantage in the developing contest with the Soviet Union. The historian J. Samuel Walker, noted for his efforts to find middle ground among the rival interpretations on the use of the bomb, thoughtfully concluded that this recent literature “has gravely undermined if not totally refuted the fundamental revisionist tenets that Japan was ready to surrender on the sole condition that the emperor remain on the throne and that American leaders were well aware of Japan’s desire to quit the war on reasonable terms.”[1] Yet new works still appear regularly that propagate the myth that Truman erred in using the atomic bombs.  We can be assured that the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings will prompt the publication of numerous essays and op-ed articles which argue this flawed position.

I offer the following excerpt from my book The Most Controversial Decision: Truman, the Atomic Bombs and the Defeat of Japan for those who wish to gain a more firm grasp on American and Japanese thinking and intentions immediately prior to the use of the atomic bombs. It is drawn from Chapter 5 “Hiroshima, the Japanese, and the Soviets.”

Hiroshima, the Japanese, and the Soviets

The final orders to use the atomic bombs had been issued well before Truman began his journey home from Potsdam. On July 25 General Marshall’s deputy, Gen. Thomas Handy, serving as the acting chief of staff, wrote at the direction of Stimson and Marshall to Gen. Carl Spaatz, the commanding general of the Army Strategic Air Forces and told him:  The 509 Composite Group, 20 th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki.” Handy went further and instructed that additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as ready by the project staff, and he explained that further instructions will be issued concerning targets other than those listed above. Notably, there was no suggestion here that only two bombs would be used. The American military prepared to utilize the atomic weapons as they became available.

Stimson had alerted Truman on July 30 of the rapid progress on what he termed Grovess project and the expected use of the atomic bomb in early August. The secretary of war also obtained Truman s approval for the White House to release a prepared statement once the bomb had been delivered on its target. It must be appreciated that the American military largely controlled the specifi c timing of the bomb s use and Truman proved quite content to delegate that responsibility. Indeed, Truman possessed few hesitations about using the weapon, and he simply wanted the military planning to reach fruition.Whatever the subsequent controversies over the atomic bomb, this decision caused him none of the anxiety that afflicted him during later difficult decisions, such as when he fired Douglas MacArthur in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War. It constituted an important but hardly a controversial decision for him.

Notably, no action of the Japanese government or military in the period after the Potsdam Declaration encouraged either Truman or Byrnes to consider any change in American strategy. Quite the opposite! Having broken the Japanese codes the Americans knew of the tentative, backchannel efforts of certain civilian offi cials in Tokyo to enlist the Soviet Union in negotiating some kind of peace settlement that would not require either a surrender and occupation of the home islands or any fundamental changes in the Japanese imperial system (kokutai). But such terms were completely unacceptable to the Allies. The American-led alliance intended unrestricted occupation of Japanese territory, total authority in the governing of Japan, dismantlement of Japan s military and military-industrial complex (demobilization), a restructuring of Japanese society (demilitarization), and Allied-run war crimes trials.” Japan must concede fully as had Germany. No indication of such a surrender occurred, of course, because the influential Japanese decision makers could not countenance it. So the American policy makers waited in vain for the Japanese to respond positively to the Potsdam Declaration s call for immediate and unconditional surrender. Instead, Japans Prime Minister Suzuki Kantaro publicly dismissed the Potsdam terms on July 28 and on July 30. When referring to the terms, he confided to a senior cabinet official that for the enemy to say something like that means circumstances have arisen that force them also to end the war. That is why they are talking about unconditional surrender. Precisely at a time like this, if we hold firm, then they will yield before we do. He did not think there is any need to stop [the war.]

To continue reading, download the full excerpt here.

[1] See J. Samuel Walker, “Recent Literature on Truman’s Atomic Bomb decision: A Search for Middle Ground,” Diplomatic History [April, 2005] 29: 333.

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About the Author: Wilson D. Miscamble

Wilson D. Miscamble is the author of The Most Controversial Decision....

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